Let’s Talk About Hepatitis C

You’ve probably seen the advertisements for Harvoni, the new medication for Hepatitis C.  Hepatitis C has become more and more common with the rising incidence of IV drug use. About 2.7-3.9 million people in the US have chronic Hepatitis C.  That means that if you don’t have Hepatitis C yourself, you probably know someone who does.

In order to understand how Harvoni works, it helps to understand some things about Hepatitis C. Most people don’t really know the difference between Hepatitis A, B, and C.  They are caused by 3 different viruses. Infection from the Hepatitis A virus usually comes from contaminated food or water. It can be passed through feces.  It’s usually an acute infection that does not become chronic. Hepatitis B virus infection usually occurs when blood or body fluids, such as semen from an infected person, enter the body of an uninfected person. This can occur when IV drug users share needles with other users. Hepatitis B can also be transmitted during birth to the newborn from an infected mother or through sexual contact. Hepatitis B can become chronic though it doesn’t always happen. There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and B, but not Hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is acquired through blood to blood transmission. It can be sexually transmitted if there is some blood/blood exchange, but that isn’t common. The most common cause of Hepatitis C is IV drug use. Hepatitis C can be transmitted to a newborn during birth. Rarely transmission could occur if a non-infected person uses a razor that has blood from an infected person, or if somehow blood from an infected person enters an open wound of a non-infected person, for example needle-sticks in the health care setting.  It can be acquired through tattoos is the tattoo needle was not cleaned properly and has the blood of someone with hepatitis C on it.  People who received blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992 are at risk because there was no screening for HIV and hepatitis C in blood donors before that.

Common symptoms of Hepatitis C are decreased appetite, abdominal pain, dark urine, or light, grayish stools, or jaundice.

Harvoni is unique in that the dose is only one pill per day. Several years ago, when hepatitis C was treated with interferon, ribavirin, and proteases, patients took up to 18 pills per day and the chance of cure was not that impressive. So a 95 % cure rate with a dose of only one pill per day is pretty amazing. However, there are some caveats.

First of all, patients need to be tested to determine the genotype of their Hepatitis C virus. There are 6 different “strains” of Hepatitis C virus. The most common strain in the US is Genotype 1. Harvoni is effective with genotype 1 Hepatitis C.  Most patients need to take it for 12 weeks though sometimes it only takes 8 weeks.  Or course, people who are generally healthy other than the Hepatitis C usually have the best response.  In January, 2016, two more medications were approved that are effective for the other genotypes. They are just becoming available. So Hepatitis C can be cured.

There are some side effects. Most people taking any of these hepatitis medications feel tired. Some patients feel a little weak or lightheaded or foggy in their thinking.  With the older medications, such as interferon, there was an incidence of severe depression. That is less common with the new medications.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get insurance companies to pay for the new drugs until the person has fairly advanced disease. That makes no sense because people are more likely to respond quickly before they are extremely ill. But that’s how insurance companies operate.

If you have risk factors, it is definitely worth being tested for Hepatitis C. Most people don’t even know that they have it early in the course of the disease. Occasionally, some people can clear the virus without treatment. However, if you do have it, you need to be monitored. It can progress to cirrhosis if not treated.


Suboxone: Just Another Addiction?

I heard recently from a friend who attended a continuing education update on suboxone for non-physicians that the addiction counsellors who were there spent the entire session trashing suboxone.  I’m guessing they didn’t learn much. I’m not sure what role the moderator played, but apparently the trashing went on without anyone speaking up for the other side.  So, as a prescriber of suboxone, I’m going to speak up for the other side.

When I hear people criticize suboxone, it is usually based on opinion.  I see addiction, especially opiate addiction, as a medical illness that affects the brain.  I see many of the choices that addicts make as a result of this brain dysfunction.  What often appears to be a choice, is not really a free-will choice. It’s fueled by craving, fear of withdrawal, and for people who have failed many treatments, a sense of hopelessness. We don’t treat other medical illnesses based on opinion. We look at the research.

These are the most common criticisms that I hear about suboxone.

  1. It’s just as bad as the heroin. It’s just another opiate, replacing one opiate with another. You’ve got to be kidding me. You really think that suboxone, an FDA approved medication, is just as bad as heroin? Honestly, I have heard people, even addiction therapists, say this. Suboxone is a partial–opiate agonist, meaning that it binds to opiate receptors, but does not have the full effect of an opiate such as morphine or heroin. People who take suboxone don’t crave opiates because their opiate receptors are occupied, but they don’t feel high.  My patients tell me that they feel “normal.” They feel clear cognitively.
  2. It can be abused just like heroin.  Yes, it can be abused. So can gabapentin, amitriptyline, tramadol, Wellbutrin, Prozac, and many other legally prescribed medications. Oh, and let’s not forget the opiates that are legally prescribed for pain. Because suboxone is a partial–opiate agonist, you have to work hard to abuse it. Most true opiate addicts don’t’ want to bother abusing suboxone because they don’t get the kind of high that they get with the stronger stuff. It’s too much trouble. Plus, the effect of suboxone plateaus after a certain amount. In other words, you can take more but you won’t get any more benefit. This is in contrast to pure opiates which continue to exert effect (mainly getting high) as the dose goes up. This is why addicts take so much of the pure opiates that respiratory suppression occurs and death ensues. Most people who have overdosed on suboxone have other drugs in their system as well, usually benzodiazepines (valium, xanax, ativan). It’s hard to overdose on suboxone alone, but not impossible.  If people are determined to overdose, they will find a way to do it, whether it’s suboxone or something else.
  3. That doctor kept my family member on it for 7 years. Yep, that’s another common complaint. Family members or anti-suboxone therapists feel that patients should be off of suboxone in a few months. It’s the should word again. When suboxone first came out, the thinking was that people could be tapered off in 6-12 months. However, studies have shown that some of those people who were tapered off quickly, relapsed. It seems that people who stayed on it longer, did better. The dose can and should be decreased over time, but it may be that some people manage better with a small amount long-term.  So I would say that if your family member or client is doing well, working, managing family life, contributing in a positive way to society, why are you worried about whether or not they take a pill to treat their addiction? So they’ve been on it for 7 years, or 8 years or 10 years.  We need to accept that this is a chronic, serious, tough to beat illness.
  4. The withdrawal from suboxone is worse than heroin. That’s why you work with a physician who understands suboxone.  It has to be tapered slowly. Some people can taper faster than others. Withdrawal symptoms can be treated. Why rush?   If the client just stops suddenly (which sometimes happens when friends, family, or therapists hassle them about being on suboxone), there will be withdrawal symptoms.
  5. Addicts can do it without medication if they are really motivated. This one really gets me. So that means that if someone fails a treatment, it’s their fault?? That’s called blame the patient when the treatment doesn’t work. Yes, many people can do it without using medication and more power to them. But what about the ones who can’t? Are we to just chalk it up to their lack of commitment? In medicine, if someone fails treatment, we change the treatment, we don’t’ just wave them off as unmotivated. People who have been able to conquer their addiction without medication tend to be the loudest proponents of the “my way is the only correct way to do this” approach. So is there really only one way to achieve sobriety? I just don’t think so.  One belief that underlies this idea that all addicts should be able to get sober on their own without medication is that addiction is just the product of a weak will. PEOPLE, it’s not that simple. READ the studies, look at the science of addiction. If it were really that simple, I think we would have more sober people and fewer deaths from opiate addiction.
  6. If they are taking medication, they aren’t really sober. This is often the AA/NA stance. That’s why many patients on suboxone either don’t go to self-help groups, or they go but don’t reveal that they are on suboxone. That’s too bad. AA and NA have a lot to offer opiate addicts on suboxone. They still need contact with people who are sober, people who have been through what they have. Sometimes they have more than one addiction.  Too bad these groups can’t get past the idea that some people benefit from taking medication for their illness. I often want to ask people who complain about suboxone if they would advise people with diabetes or hypertension to go off their meds because they should be able to control their blood sugar or blood pressure on their own.  By the way, I don’t hear a lot of complaints about people taking the approved medications for alcohol dependence – disulfiram, ReVia, acamprosate.

People who are on suboxone are struggling to get their lives back together. They don’t need to be sabotaged by others who feel that there is only one right way to get clean, their way.  Suboxone is not magic.  Most people on suboxone are also in therapy.  Before you criticize somebody on suboxone, think about whether you would rather have them on a medication that helps them maintain sobriety or at risk of relapse because they have failed other treatments. Would you rather have them alive or dead?

This is one study looking at suboxone versus methadone versus placebo. There are many others published. Go to PubMed (The National Library of Medicine) and search suboxone or buprenorphine. Base your recommendations about suboxone on research rather than opinion.


Mattick RP, Breen C, Kimber J, Davoli M. Buprenorphine maintenance versus placebo or methadone maintenance for opioid dependence. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;(2):CD002207.


Medical News that Impacts Your Life.

Week of July 11

It happened to Betty Crocker!!

Even Betty Crocker is not immune from recalls. Recently, General Mills announced a recall of two Betty Crocker cake mixes in the US – party rainbow chip and carrot cake mixes. The problem was the Wondra flour used to produce some ingredients in the cake mixes. The flour was recalled after the CDC found E. coli contamination in June. The contaminated flour caused sickness in 38 people.  That is only the latest in a series of E. coli recalls. Remember the recent problems with produce from Mexico.

E. coli is actually common bacteria, and is even found in our bowel. That strain of E coli does not cause illness to humans for the most part, though it can sometimes cause urinary tract infections. But there are over 700 strains of E. coli, and the one causing serious illness is E. coli O157:H7.  This particular E. coli strain releases a toxin called the Shiga toxin. The Shiga toxin is very similar to that released in Shigella infection.  As a matter of fact, one theory is that there was a transfer of genetic material from a Shigella bacterium to a common E. coli bacterium, and that launched E. coli O157:H7.

This strain of E. coli is very easily transmitted, and it doesn’t take a high concentration of the bacteria to make people really sick. The primary symptoms are severe abdominal pain and diarrhea which sometimes progresses to bloody diarrhea. Most people do recover, but those with weaker immune systems, such as the elderly, young children, or people with chronic illnesses, are more likely to die. Antibiotics don’t help, as a matter of fact they can sometimes make it worse. Supportive care is the main treatment. The development of hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which is the result of massive spread of the toxin, causes a shutdown of the kidneys due to small clots in the vessels supplying the kidney with blood.  Once the infection progresses to that point, it is often fatal.

This strain of E. coli has been found in the GI tract of cows and other animals. It ends up in raw meat. If the meat is undercooked, the potential for transmission is there. However, this is not the only source of E. coli O157:H7. It has been found in produce such as lettuce, spinach, carrots, and other field grown crops.  It makes sense the E. coli could end up in meat since it is primarily found in the GI tract of animals, but how does it end up in produce? Scientists think that the soil where the vegetables and fruits were grown was contaminated by manure from infected cattle or wild animals going through the fields leaving droppings or contamination of irrigation water with manure or droppings. However, there is not a definite answer to that question.

For more info about E. coli check out about-ecoli.com. There is a great section on prevention of E. coli infection. The primary method of prevention is fully cooking meat to 160 degrees F for 15 seconds and scrubbing vegetables and fruits.   The site points out that if someone in the house has diarrhea, special care should be taken to avoid contamination by using gloves when assisting that person and scrupulous hand washing.


Drunkorexia – Is Your Child At Risk?

There is a new trend on college campuses.  While college students are known for risky behaviors, this one is very hazardous to health. It’s called drunkorexia. Dr. Dipali Rinker, a research assistant in the department of neurology at the University of Houston, reported on a study that she conducted at the Research Society on Alcoholism meeting in New Orleans on June 30, 2016. The phenomenon of intoxication on an empty stomach is not new, but the extreme to which some college students are taking it is very concerning.   According to the findings from Rinker’s study, these students engage in one or more of the following behaviors before or after drinking: excessive exercise, binging and /or purging, or extreme calorie restriction. The main purpose of the behaviors is to enhance the euphoria from drinking, though some students reported that they also wanted to decrease calories from the alcohol. Rinker reports that in her study, both men and women were equally likely to engage in drunkorexic behaviors to reduce calories from alcohol.  She noted that college women who drank more had more bulimic behaviors and more problems with alcohol as a result of those behaviors.


A similar study was reported by Science News (sciencedaily.com) in October of 2011. That study was conducted at the University of Missouri and was reported by Victoria Osborne, assistant professor of social work and public health. She and her colleagues found that 16% of students surveyed had restricted calories in order to save them for drinking alcohol.  In her study, three times more women than men reported these behaviors.  The motivation for drunkorexia in this study included getting drunk more quickly, preventing weight gain and saving money for purchase of alcohol rather than food.


Combining excessive drinking with lack of nutrition can lead to both short-term and long –term consequences.  Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach leads to intoxication much more quickly. College students are particularly vulnerable to making bad decisions when very intoxicated. They may be new to college, seeking social approval, feeling both insecure and exhilarated at new-found freedom. The impairment that comes from alcohol intoxication can lead to sexual victimization, violence (as victim or perpetrator), difficulty academically, or life-threatening alcohol poisoning.  For students who came to college with a history of eating disorder issues or substance abuse problems, this combines the two and adds another layer of dangerousness.


Chronic alcohol use can result in nutritional deficiencies, especially deficits in folate and thiamine. Though the study subjects were not specifically tested for nutritional deficiencies, it stands to reason that this could be an issue when you combine poor nutrition with excessive drinking, even if it’s binge drinking. Thiamine is important in memory, cognition and muscle coordination. Folate is important in the development of new cells. It is extremely important during pregnancy because low folate can cause neurological birth deficits, especially spina bifida. Of course, college women are definitely of child bearing age, and may not always recognize that they are pregnant immediately. College students are not immune from other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and seizures. Excessive drinking can increase the likelihood of seizures especially in someone who already has a seizure disorder. Of course calorie restriction and poor eating habits resulting in poorly controlled blood sugar increase the chances of diabetic complications such as neuropathy and vision problems.


So, as a parent, you may be wondering what the take-home message is here. Can anything be done to prevent your child from participating in this behavior?  Your input as a parent can make a difference. Here are some suggestions for the pre-college discussion.


  1. Know your child. Has your child had social anxiety, some self esteem-issues? Allow your child to discuss anxiety about adjusting at college. Help your child come up with some ideas for meeting people.  If your child is shy, practice some conversational techniques that may work for them.
  2. Ask your child directly how her friends feel about alcohol and drugs. Sometimes kids are more willing to tell you how their friends feel than how they feel. But chances are, they feel the same way.
  3. Talk with your child about how she might handle some specific scenarios when alcohol is offered. Help her come up with some responses and actions that will work for her when she needs them.
  4. Work on problem solving. If he does find himself in a bad situation, what can he do? Keep communication open. If he is being pressured to drink or is drinking, he needs to be able to talk to you about it without fear.
  5. Don’t be complacent if your child has tried alcohol or drugs during high school and seemingly “learned their lesson.” You may think that the novelty has worn off, and they are not as likely to go overboard, but that isn’t true. These kids are more likely to increase their use of drugs and alcohol in college.
  6. Be aware of how things are going once they get to college. Call and visit. If grades start to deteriorate, they seem distant, they seem tired or speech seems slurred, ask questions.
  7. Be honest with yourself about your own drinking and drug use. You are the role model. If you have a problem, your kids are more vulnerable because of genetic and environmental influences.


If you think you may have a problem yourself, start there. You really can’t have the kind of open communication that you desire with your pre-college child if you have not dealt with your own substance use.   If you aren’t sure whether you have a problem, get an assessment from an addiction professional. If you know you have a problem, get treatment. Check out the American Society of Addiction Medicine website (asam.org). Click on Resources and then Find a Doctor.

University of Missouri-Columbia. (2011, October 17). ‘Drunkorexia:’ A recipe for disaster. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111017171506.htm.

Research Society on Alcoholism. (2016, June 27). Drunkorexia 101: Increasing Alcohol’s Effects Through Diet and Exercise Behaviors. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160627100223.htm





Medical News that Impacts Your Life

Week of July 4, 2016

Physical Activity and Diabetes:  If you are pre-diabetic and frustrated because you haven’t lost weight, take heart. A new study from the Diabetes Prevention Program shows that for some individuals, 150 minutes of brisk walking activity per week reduced their risk of developing diabetes whether or not they actually lost weight. The even better news is that people who were inactive to start with were more likely to see this benefit.

Furthermore, the Diabetes Prevention Program just finished a 15-year study that took 3234 people who were pre-diabetic (overweight, middle aged, and with slightly elevated fasting blood glucose) and randomized them to 3 groups: placebo, medication only, or intensive lifestyle intervention. The placebo and medication groups received some basic instruction about diet initially. The medication group received metformin, a medication to lower blood sugar. The intensive lifestyle intervention group received 16 individual sessions on diet, exercise, and behavior modification plus a group session monthly.  They did not receive medication. The goal was for the intensive lifestyle patients to add 150 minutes of physical activity (usually brisk walking) per week to their regimen. Over the first 3 years, the patients in the intensive lifestyle group were 58% less likely to develop diabetes than those in the placebo group, and over 15 years, they were 27% less likely to develop diabetes.  So for some people it only delayed the onset of diabetes, but this is still a good thing.  You don’t have to be a marathon runner. Brisk walking for 150 minutes per week is possible. You could do 25 minutes per day 6 days per week and meet that goal.

Children and Sleep Apnea:  Most of you have probably heard of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It’s usually thought of as a disorder most common in adults. OSA occurs when throat muscles relax during sleep and cause the airway to close. As a result, your breathing stops and starts during the night. Snoring is the hallmark of OSA.  OSA can cause problems during the day such as sleepiness because of poor quality sleep, difficulty with concentration, depression, memory problems, and heart problems. The heart problems occur because, due to the off and on breathing, your oxygen saturation gets very low during the night. This causes the heart to have to work harder to get oxygen to your organs.

OSA can occur in children. At a recent meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, Sara Honaker, Ph.D., reported on a study showing that the rate at which pediatricians are identifying OSA in children is extremely low. This isn’t because OSA is rare in children; the pediatricians are not properly screening for the disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the America Academy of Sleep Medicine both recommend that children with frequent snoring be referred for an evaluation for OSA. Snoring more than 3 nights per week is a strong indicator of OSA.  Children are subject to the same problems related to OSA as adults are.

If your child seems to snore frequently, talk to your pediatrician about Obstructive Sleep Apnea.